It is never a dull day in Malaysian politics, but there seems to be a brief pause – for the time being. The last two years saw a series of continuous and rapid political developments, starting with the change in federal government in early 2020, alongside shifts in many state governments, and ending most recently with yet another government change in August 2021. Malaysia has therefore seen three federal governments over a period of two years, with tremendous upheaval in between. This piece unpacks the political developments over the last two years in its various phases, and ends with examining the country’s future political outlook.
The rise of the Perikatan Nasional government
The Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, only having come to power a short 20 months earlier in May 2018, fell when its Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad resigned from his position. A series of developments in that critical week at the end of February 2020 led eventually to the installation of the country’s 8th Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, in March 2020.
Muhyiddin’s government, the at the time newly-formed coalition Perikatan Nasional (PN), comprised the parties that previously helmed federal government since the country’s independence: the United Malays’ National Organisation (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Alliance (MCA), and the Malaysian Indians’ Congress (MIC), all three of which were already component parties of the Barisan Nasional (BN).
The key difference was that the PN coalition would now also consist of parties that were previously in opposition to the BN: the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), well-known for its longstanding hold on the Malay-Muslim East Coast state Kelantan, as well as Muhyiddin’s own Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM).
Central to Mahathir’s decision not to align himself with UMNO in particular was that he was deeply opposed to a partnership with those who had pending court cases related to 1MDB.
Mahathir, alongside Muhyiddin and other leaders, had in 2017 left UMNO to form PPBM at the height of the infamous international 1MDB scandal. Then allies, Muhyiddin’s move to join forces with UMNO and PAS in 2020 saw the two leaders parting ways. Central to Mahathir’s decision not to align himself with UMNO in particular was that he was deeply opposed to a partnership with those who had pending court cases related to 1MDB. Mahathir, after all, had launched a highly public campaign against former Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak in the previous 2018 national election, criticizing the case of grand corruption, unprecedented only in scale, but not practice – which, arguably, alongside other factors such as his teaming up with the PH coalition – led to the downfall of BN for the first time in the country’s history.
That BN was back in power, but under a different coalition name, struck a raw nerve for many who decried it as a “backdoor government”, having been voted out in the 14th General Election. Nevertheless, Malaysia’s system of parliamentary democracy premised on a constitutional monarchy means ultimately that the King has the legitimate right to appoint as Prime Minister the parliamentarian who, in his judgment, commands the majority of the Lower House. Obtaining statutory declarations and meeting parliamentarians individually was his chosen method that informed this decision. This was not unprecedented, the practice of which was accepted in the case of the Perak constitutional crisis of 2009, in which the then Pakatan Rakyat state government was toppled by the Barisan Nasional, on the basis of three state assemblypersons defecting by way of statutory declarations.
The precarious state of Muhyiddin Yassin’s government
Then Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin took over federal government at a most crucial time, precisely when the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic was escalating rapidly. A regional evangelical Muslim tabligh had just been held, the source of a major cluster of infections in March 2020. His administration had to launch immediately into the business of managing the pandemic, issuing the first nationwide lockdown (the first Movement Control Order, or MCO, beginning in March 2020).
Each of the following pandemic waves in the country was successively worse, with exponentially increasing daily cases. The Sabah state election that took place in September 2020 led to a rapid wave of infections, peaking at 2,525 new daily cases by the end of the year. The perception that this came about as a result of politicians “bringing the virus back” from East to West Malaysia, coupled with an almost year-long series of poor public policy coordination resulting in confusion (instructions from the police often conflicted with that from ministers and standard operating procedures from ministries had to be revised multiple times), meant that there was already growing frustration with the Muhyiddin administration.
Muhyiddin’s government was already dangerously unstable. After all, when he took over, he had a razor-thin majority, which even then continued to be questioned throughout his leadership. In October, Muhyiddin requested but was denied a national Emergency; his reason was that the government needed to respond to the national COVID-19 crisis, although it was widely speculated that this was done on political grounds given his precarious position. Muhyiddin’s legitimacy had not yet been determined in Parliament, and calling for a general election in the middle of a pandemic was impractical. Of course, the Opposition could have, but failed, to use the tabling of the 2021 Budget in November 2020 as a way to unseat the PN coalition. Thus, 2020 ended with Muhyiddin’s government still intact, but barely.
Grasping for straws and the rapid decline
In January 2021, again Muhyiddin requested that an Emergency Proclamation be announced, which this time the King agreed to, and Parliament was suspended on account of the Emergency. This Emergency would last from 12 January till 1 August. A slate of Emergency Ordinances were issued, which gave the Prime Minister the unilateral ability to spend without seeking parliamentary approval, enabled the government to withdraw RM5 billion from a National Trust Fund for the first time on COVID-19 related spending (representing almost a third of the fund’s total deposits), and restrict freedom of speech under a specific “fake news” Ordinance. In reaction, civil society organisations protested against what was considered infringements of fundamental liberties.
Throughout this period, the relationship between PPBM and UMNO was already weakening, and by March, the latter announced it would not co-operate with PPBM in the next general election. One of its most vocal spokespersons was Azalina Othman, the Deputy Speaker, also decried parliamentary suspension publicly, which won over some public sentiment. The previously semi-authoritarian dominant party of UMNO, despite being back in government, was no longer in the driver’s seat and in fact issued public statements against PPBM’s increasingly poor handling of the worsening COVID-19 crisis. The intra-coalition cracks were beginning to widen into rifts, and very visibly so.
As Malaysia entered its third nationwide lockdown in June, while pandemic cases escalated at an alarming rate, the nation saw the King – who by convention plays a ceremonial role and by constitution acts upon the advice of the Prime Minister – intervening into what descended into a constitutional crisis. On 9 June, the King met with leaders of the political parties, and on 16 June, he issued a statement calling for Parliament to reconvene as soon as possible to allow debate of the Emergency Ordinances and a COVID-19 recovery plan. Although Muhyiddin appointed UMNO parliamentarian as his deputy in early July, UMNO still withdrew support for the coalition and called for Muhyiddin’s resignation over pandemic mismanagement.
What followed was a very unusual and unprecedented public spat between the Palace and the federal government regarding the Emergency.
What followed was a very unusual and unprecedented public spat between the Palace and the federal government regarding the Emergency. On 26 July, the day of the special parliamentary session, the PN law minister announced that there was no need to debate the Ordinances, as they had already been revoked, which was then publicly rebuked by the Palace three days later, saying that the revocation was done without the King’s consent and is not in line with the country’s constitution and laws. Muhyiddin eventually agreed to consider debating the emergency laws in Parliament.
However, after maintaining that he held the majority of Parliament throughout his embattled tenure, Muhyiddin finally conceded on 13 August that he did not have a majority. Stunningly, he offered an attractive reform package to the Opposition in exchange for support in a confidence vote, and committed to elections taking place by July 2022.
Amongst the reforms promised were a two-term limit of Prime Ministership, lowering the voting age to 18, equal constituency funding for all members of parliament, an anti-hopping law, more parliamentary special select committees to involve all MPs with 50% opposition chairpersonship, pre-tabling consultation of bills and budgets with all MPs, and remuneration and facilities for the Parliamentary opposition leader on the rank of a senior minister (Wong, 2021). Enticing as it was, the deal was felt to be ‘too little, too late’ and was rejected unanimously by all PH parties. Muhyiddin stepped down as Prime Minister, and Ismail Sabri was installed as the country’s 9th Prime Minister on 21 August 2021.
The final (for now) shift of power – and new ‘understandings’
The most significant development of Ismail Sabri’s new premiership thus far has been his success at securing Malaysia’s first-ever confidence and supply agreement between the federal government and the Opposition, officially known as a ‘Memorandum of Understanding on Transformation and Political Stability’ (MoU). What is crucial to note throughout this series of political events is that no single party commands a strong majority of Parliament, which is what likely led to Ismail pushing for the MoU to be signed even after having ascended into power. Despite some glaring gaps (for instance, there are no commitments to a political financing law to address political corruption), there are many positive elements that address both COVID-19 management and institutional reform.
The MoU committed to, for example, the National Recovery Council including public and private sector experts as well as Opposition members, cash aid of RM10 billion, for the Opposition to contribute meaningfully to the 2022 Budget, limiting the Prime Minister’s term to 10 years. On institutional reforms, the MoU committed to hastening the implementation of lowering the voting age to 18, automatic voter registration, an anti-hopping law and having balanced representation between government and opposition MPs in Parliamentary Select Committees.
There has been some skepticism over whether or not the government would be serious in implementing these commitments, while others believe it is a step in the right direction. Most recently, the new memberships of Parliamentary Select Committees has been announced, which saw the inclusion of 50% of opposition MPs in each one. The Opposition leader has also been granted ministerial-level status and the necessary corresponding amenities.
In short, while UMNO holds the position of Prime Minister, the government is still very much influenced by PPBM.
Yet, after all the developments that led to the most recent change in government, the Cabinet composition of Muhyiddin’s and Ismail’s governments are not very different. Critics have observed that the move reeked more of a Cabinet reshuffle. For example, a few short weeks after the government change, Muhyiddin was appointed as National Recovery Council chairman, the position considered a minister-level appointment. In short, while UMNO holds the position of Prime Minister, the government is still very much influenced by PPBM.
The future of Malaysian politics
What accounts for the unusual composition of, and hence influence within, the current federal government is simply, as alluded to above, the doing away of dominant party politics in Malaysia. The term that best characterizes Malaysian politics over the last two years is ‘fragmentation’. A stalwart party as old and institutionalized as UMNO has suffered the consequences of deep factionalism, while many of its key leaders continue to be weighed down by their associations with 1MDB. UMNO Cabinet members, for example, do not hold key positions within the party itself.
The PN experiment seemed to be ideal partnership when it was formed. Indeed, in September 2020, a public poll by Merdeka Center for Opinion Research placed the coalition as the most popular of the available options. Painting itself as the grand Malay-Muslim coalition that stood for the rights of the majority Malay community in the country, it was meant to attract the support of constituents. Ultimately, however, electoral politics in Malaysia requires competition – and the three parties PPBM, UMNO and PAS would be contesting against each other in similar seats, hence the eventual breakdown between PPBM and UMNO. This leaves Malaysia, then, with the options of the BN consociational model and the multiracial PH model, the latter of which did not have the time it needed to test its potential success over at least one term.
What makes of the Opposition throughout this tumultuous period? There were instances in which Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim claimed to have the majority of parliamentary support – in September 2020, January 2021 and again in August 2021 – but at each turn he was not ultimately able to swing things in his favour. Sitting at the table to contribute to national plans is probably the best outcome for the Opposition at this time. For example, members of the PH coalition have been invited to provide their input at consultation meetings on Budget 2022, which will be tabled in Parliament at the end of October. There was also no public criticism of the recently announced 12th Malaysia Plan by the Opposition, which may be a sign of this new political realignment.
Of course, time will tell whether this partnership will remain. There will be increasing pressure on both the government and opposition to follow-up on concrete commitments in the MoU, including the tabling of an Anti-Hopping Bill, lowering the voting age to 18 and the 10-year Prime Ministerial limit by the first parliamentary sitting of 2022. And there is a clear deadline, since there is assurance that Parliament will not dissolve before 31 July 2022 – but what then, after this date? The decision to hold elections will also be determined by COVID-19: will there be yet another wave, with waning vaccination efficacy?
The 15th General Election must be held by May 2023. It can be called anytime sooner, but this is highly unlikely to happen, since there are tremendous incumbency advantages held by the sitting government. In the meantime, all political parties will be using this relatively peaceful period to oil their ground machinery, which is so imperative in the grassroots and community service typology of Malaysian politics. UMNO especially will make use of long-established and deeply-rooted networks to its benefit. Over the next two years, funds – it is impossible to determine what is legitimate since the country does not have a Political Financing Act – will be raised, circulated and distributed.
The 15th General Election must be held by May 2023.
It can be called anytime sooner, but this is highly unlikely to happen
One thing is certain. The single-party dominant nature of Malaysian politics has changed for good. Unless rapid consolidation can take place, which is highly unlikely, no one party will have the ability to dominate, and parties will have to compete to be part of strong(er) coalitions. And one positive outcome is that such negotiations are now premised on better-quality policies, a step in the right direction of policy-driven politics. At such an acute time of economic and political uncertainty, this is surely something to be hopeful about.
Tricia Yeoh is CEO of IDEAS (Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs), an independent public policy think tank in Malaysia. She is also a PhD candidate at the School of Politics, History and International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. She writes on national socio-economic policy and has delivered various presentations at national and international platforms.
The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.